Liverpool’s veteran midfielder James Milner holds the record for assists in a Champions League campaign. Not Messi, not Neymar, not Xavi or Ronaldo or Ryan Giggs. James Milner. The unassuming 32-year-old who spent last season filling in at left back and who, for all his talents, nobody is about to mistake as one of the game’s great playmakers.
That’s not meant as a knock on Milner—he’s the kind of smart, hard-working, hard-tackling player any manager would love. And if his skill-set isn’t going to get him on many highlight reels—if it’s, well, just a little bit boring—he’s at least got the self-awareness to have some fun with his reputation for being a bit dull, often endearingly at his own expense.
But he’s just not a player you’d ever pick for holding the single-season assists record in the Champions League. So how did he end up the future answer to a pub quiz question? Simply put, it’s the gegenpress, Jürgen Klopp’s name for the high-press system he’s always favoured as a manager, and it’s the system deserving much of the credit here.
Put simply, the gegenpress—or gegenpressing—is a tactic that involves pushing high up the pitch with your attack and midfield the instant your team loses possession, attempting to force the opposition into a turnover before they can start to build play and so that they won’t be set up defensively to stop a quick counter on a shortened field.
It’s all a bit more complicated than that in the details, of course. At least when done well. To be effective, the entire team has to shift with the press, not just the players closing down the ball carrier, as the real goal in Klopp’s gegenpress—rather than to dispossess the player who has the ball—is to force the ball to be played into an area of the his side’s choosing.
Against teams that play out from the back, the gegenpress can do more to create quality scoring chances than even having a world class playmaker in your side. That’s Klopp’s theory. And it’s not just Klopp—Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham uses a similar high press, and Pep Guardiola has introduced elements of it at Manchester City.
Which brings us back to James Milner, aka the man who now holds the Champions League record for assists in a single campaign not because he’s a great playmaker but because he’s smart, tireless, and likes a tackle. It seems, if not obvious in retrospect, at least explicable—Klopp’s theory, Milner’s skill-set, and the results when the two are put together.
Nobody on the outside, though, can honestly say they saw it coming ahead of time, at least not going by how concerned most of Liverpool’s fanbase was heading into the 2017-18 season—and then even more so when Philippe Coutinho was sold to Barcelona in January—by what was seen as a general lack of guile and creativity in the side’s midfield.
Milner’s success, then, stands as something of a real-world example of Klopp’s theory, the one fans and pundits have long been aware of as an idea but perhaps haven’t really, truly understood in practice. The one that says winning the ball in dangerous areas can create more quality scoring chances than having a world class playmaker in your side.
And Milner, with his game intelligence and endless running, is more than capable of helping to win the ball back in dangerous areas and playing a simple pass forward. Change the system, though—say by having him come out of international retirement to play for a more down-tempo England at the World Cup—and he wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
The same is true for teammate Jordan Henderson and Tottenham star Dele Alli, two England starters who seem fated to underperform at the World Cup not because they’re bad players but simply because they’re best suited to playing in a high-press side. For England, they’ll instead be asked to play a style of football that works against their skill-sets.
The importance of tactics—beyond the basics of formation—and how they align with the talents of the players can be easy to overlook as a fan, but if one ever doubts the difference it can make to performances and results, one need look no further than Milner, who at 32 appears to have found his perfect tactical fit in Klopp’s gegenpress.